Migrants - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 25th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated 3:31 pm, 25th November 2021

My Lords, never has a debate on migrants coming to our shores been more timely. What happened last night in French waters—the terrible, tragic loss of at least 27 people—should shock us all. I am sure that, in today’s debate, we will be able to discuss this hugely important issue in a meaningful and calm way—no politician should be trying to make political gains out of such a tragedy.

What is surprising to me is that, since November 2018, according to the House of Lords Library, there has been no debate on migrants coming to the UK in this House. There have been some Questions, eight in all, and two repeated Statements—one very recently. But the fact that we in your Lordships’ House have not discussed what is a very serious problem with our border control is somewhat surprising. Out there, beyond the Westminster bubble, in the last few months, this is what more and more people have been discussing.

All of us in your Lordships’ House, and the vast majority of people in the UK, are welcoming of genuine asylum seekers; that is why we gave a welcome to the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin, some of whose offspring have attained positions of responsibility throughout the United Kingdom. We are currently welcoming those who have had to leave Hong Kong for safety, and of course we will be taking in many from Afghanistan who are directly at risk because of their support for British forces there. We have resettled up to 25,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and some 3,000 of the most vulnerable children from the Middle East and Africa. So I reject utterly the idea that the United Kingdom is a racist country and that we do not welcome those who are fleeing their war-torn countries. But I realise that there are some who think that even debating the issue makes us somehow complicit in intolerance. Indeed, one Member of your Lordships’ House said to me rather sadly, the other day, “Oh, I do wish you weren’t having this debate; it will lead to even more prejudice”. I do not think that that noble Lord would be saying that today, after yesterday’s tragedy.

It is important to lay down some facts at the beginning. More than 23,000 people have crossed the channel and come into the UK in small boats, either at Dover or along the nearby beaches, since the beginning of 2021, and more than 33,000 have done so since 2018. There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous journey, and clearly those who come this way are determined to get to the United Kingdom. Despite most of them having come through safe EU countries to France, they still want to come to the United Kingdom, and the people smugglers are very sophisticated operators, knowing exactly how the system works here. It is a fact that 98% of those arriving will claim they are asylum seekers, and most have no papers to show where they have come from, or are told by the smugglers to destroy their documents. That in itself is, I believe, dangerous to our security.

I am sure some noble Lords will have seen that Lithuania, which took in 4,000 people via Belarus, discovered that 24 of them had direct links with ISIS. It does not take much to work out that, with our much larger numbers, the chances of there being no sleeping terrorists coming here is nil. A Government’s first duty is of course to protect the safety and security of their citizens. Can the Minister say what is being done to check, as far as possible, the backgrounds of some of these people?

Many will want to come here because they have a relative here or feel that English is a language they can more easily learn, or because there is already a diaspora here from whatever country they have come from. But we cannot ignore the pull factor, which I found a lot more out about when I visited the Dover operation of our Border Force, three weeks ago.

It was a beautiful, sunny, windless day; Border Force was kept busy all day, going out to meet the small boats and transfer the migrants to safer boats. I have to say that the Border Force officers are exhausted. They are working extremely hard under terrible conditions, all hours of the night—this does not just go on during the day. They very much need support. We saw the migrants arriving, coming up the long walkway from the boat and going into the large tent. Incidentally, we were also taken to see the brand-new £3 million reception centre, just completed, which has modern facilities for the Border Force staff—which are greatly needed—and the migrants. On arrival, all their wet clothes are put into a plastic bag with their own personal number on it, which goes with them when they are moved on. They are given trainers, tracksuits, blankets, socks and other items, including basic toiletries. Then they all have a Covid test and any immediate medical issues are dealt with.

Each boat usually has one family or child on it. Border Force told us that this is a deliberate policy by the smugglers. But 99% of the 800 or so who arrived the day we visited were young, single men. They have a very short interview and are asked why they have come—nearly everyone says, “Claiming asylum”. They are then checked to see whether their fingerprints match anyone who has already been in the country and has been deported. Then they go off in coaches to nearby hotels, where they are not locked in and could leave if they wished to disappear. It is quite worrying that there seems to be no public record of how many over the past months have just disappeared; many will end up in what we still have in this country—modern-day slavery, on low wages.

It is important that we all understand how we treat these new arrivals, because it is very different from how other countries, such as France, do. I find the pictures of tents being broken up by French police pretty horrifying; we would not do that. Everything I saw happening in Dover showed our humanity and our determination to treat these people fairly. But let us not think that that does not play a part in the determination of many migrants to come here. Migrants who claim asylum can ask for somewhere to live, a cash allowance or both; all utility bills are paid if they can successfully claim to be destitute. Some 60,000 are housed in asylum accommodation, at a cost of around £4 million a year.

The migrants we saw arriving a couple of weeks ago are now likely to be in hotels all over the country and could be there indefinitely before going to what is called dispersal accommodation. We are now seeing places in the Midlands and the north of England taking hundreds in the dispersal policy. Once they claim asylum, these migrants are entitled to just under £40 per week on a card that allows them to get cash. In France, the card cannot access cash; it can be used only in shops.

I think we all accept that asylum is meant to be for people fleeing persecution to safety and sanctuary. But we need to ask what those people on little boats are fleeing from in the many EU countries they have come through to get to Dover or Dunkirk. As the Member of Parliament for 30 years for a constituency just over the river with a huge caseload of constituents having problems with immigration and the Home Office, I am only too aware of the shortcomings of that department. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, when he first went in as Home Secretary, saying right away that the Home Office was not fit for purpose. I am afraid that not an awful lot has changed, certainly in the immigration section.

The system takes far too long and means that, by the time someone has been interviewed and their case finally concluded, they may well have had a family here, with children at school, and deportation becomes almost impossible. I am afraid that some of the new people coming in are clogging up the system, so that those who have been waiting are now having to wait even longer. We must get a system where someone coming here illegally and refused asylum can be deported immediately. We must send a signal that we are not an open door and that we will not continue to allow the industry of lawyers to make millions from the whole asylum and immigration system, mostly from legal aid, paid for by the public.

I am looking forward—although I am sure that many in your Lordships’ House are not—to the Nationality and Borders Bill coming here, which has elements in it designed to stop the abuse of, for example, convicted violent criminals not being able to be deported because someone interprets the Human Rights Act in a way that allows them to stay. We need that Bill here as soon as possible, particularly after what happened last night.

But immediately—now, this minute—we need to see France and the United Kingdom genuinely co-operating. We need France to allow British police and security to work with the French police on their beaches. Clearly, French police are sometimes standing back and allowing boats to be launched in front of their patrols, and yet we have paid millions to the French—I really do not know what it is being spent on, but I am sure the Minister does. We should know, by the way, what that money is actually being spent on and whether it is value for money. It is very interesting that the European Union is defending the Polish border from those trying to come in from Belarus. I believe that the EU has a responsibility to do more in the rest of its member states.

I am conscious that many noble Lords want to speak, and I am genuinely looking forward to listening to what more they think could be done. For too long, the mainstream media, with a few exceptions, have tried to ignore the issue. When Nigel Farage first took this up, about 18 months ago, and filmed what was happening at Dover, he was roundly condemned, but he pointed out then that a disaster was waiting to happen. If more had been done then, and allegations of racism were not made against anyone who dared to speak out, we might not have seen this loss of life. It might not have happened, and we might have already moved to do some of the things that we will now try to catch up and do.

The warning is still there. All our words today will not make the slightest bit of difference unless rigorous and determined action is taken to stop these boats coming. Most of all, we need the Government to be open and transparent with statistics and to tell the public the truth about what can be done and what cannot, and why not. The pandering to those who do not believe in borders must stop.

Yesterday’s tragedy was a wake-up call: much too late, but at least it has happened. What we need now is no more warm words but full co-operation between this Government—our country—and the rest of those European countries to make something change. We cannot go on like this or we will see other disasters, even bigger, in future.